Virginia wrestles away Main Event title from Illinois 70-61 with late run

LAS VEGAS — In a slobberknocker of a wrestling match, Virginia basketball grappled the Main Event championship belt from Illinois with a 70-61 win at T-Mobile Arena.

In a game neither team led by more than six points until the final minute, No. 16 Virginia bogged down the pace for a No. 19-ranked Illini team that wants to push in transition, and the Illini (4-1) struggled to score in the half court against Virginia’s fundamentally sound defense. The Illini also slowed down Virginia, but the Cavaliers outscored Illinois 25 to 4 at the free-throw line.

The Cavaliers (4-0) frustrated Terrence Shannon — who had 29 points against UCLA on Friday — and held the Illini star to a season-low nine points on 4-for-9 shooting to go along with a season-high six turnovers, and Shannon fouled out in the final minute.

Illinois wrestled away the Virginia lead with 4:06 left, but the Illini didn’t make another field goal until 13 seconds were left in the game, missing five straight shots, allowing Virginia to go on a 13-0 run to seal the game .

Reece Beekman led Virginia with 17 points (6-8 FT), Kihei Clark added 12 points and Jayden Gardner had 12 points and five rebounds.

Freshman guard Jayden Epps led Illinois with 14 points, while Coleman Hawkins had 10 points (all in the second half), three assists and three blocks.

What it means: Illinois showed this weekend that it can play with and beat some of the best teams in college basketball. Sunday’s loss to Virginia is disappointing given the Illini had a lead in the final minutes, and this team still has some jelling to do with its half-court offense. But Illinois certainly showed the talent and grit to be one of the better teams in the Big Ten and the country. This weekend’s games against contrasting styles in a second-weekend-of-the-NCAA-Tournament atmosphere will certainly help them in the long run.

Stars of the game: Beekman frustrated the heck out of Shannon defensively and led Virginia with 17 points.

Despite Shannon’s struggles, the Illini have a few other guards capable of getting buckets, and Jayden Epps is proving to be an immediate-impact bucket-getter. Epps had a few poor possessions in crunch time, but he was dangerous off the bounce with four layups and is one of the Illini’s best long-range marksmen as well, hitting 2 of 5 from three on Sunday. Epps is a sign of the Illini’s new-found depth and bench advantage.

Stats of the game

  • Illinois had 10 of its 13 turnovers in the second half.
  • Virginia outscored Illinois 25 to four at the free-throw line.
  • Illinois had just three fast-break points to Virginia’s 12 fast-break points.
  • Illinois’ bench outscored Virginia’s 22-13.
  • Illinois did not score from the 3:38 mark of the second half until the 0:13 mark of the second half, allowing Virginia to go on a 13-0 run.

Don’t overlook: Coleman Hawkins once again struggled in the first half (0 points on 0-5 FG, one rebound), but he was among the best players on the court in the second half, totaling 10 points and three blocks during the final 20 minutes.

What’s next: Illinois returns home and hosts Lindenwood for an 8 pm Friday tipoff for the lone game not on broadcast television (B1G+ stream). Lindenwood (2-4) just reclassified to Division-I and the Ohio Valley Conference this academic year and will not be able to compete in the NCAA Tournament until the 2026-27 season. The Lions are 1-4 this season against Division-I opponents, defeating McNeese State 78-60 and losing 73-46 to Dayton and 82-53 to Missouri.

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